Godspeed You! Black Emperor review: the seminal experimentalists have done it again

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor is a seminal experimental post-rock band from Montreal, Canada, known for their apocalyptic imagery, messaging, and revolutionary attitude. They have influenced countless bands with their dirge-like walls of multi-instrumental sound, use of samples and field recordings, and commitment to constantly expanding the scope of what can be done with an album release – part of their third release Yanqui U.X.O’s album art is literally a flowchart linking major record labels to arms manufacturers.

This success however actually puts me, as a reviewer, in a rather awkward position. How does one go about evaluating the work of a band that has released not just one, but two albums that are routinely name-checked as some of the greatest to ever have been made?

Let’s sidestep the issue and cut right to the chase. Is G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! as good as the legendary F# A# ∞ or Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven? No. Is it worth your time? Yes, absolutely yes.

G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! being as good as it is actually came as quite a surprise to me. While much of their work is fantastic, particularly their melancholic debut F# A# ∞, it’s no secret that post-rock over the past few years has seen a bit of dive in reputation. Newer offerings to the genre are frequently seen as bad ambient music, or lazy ‘crescendocore’ which relies on creating the same quiet/loud build-up to create tension in a formula as predictable as the metalcore breakdown or as stale as the dubstep drop.

GY!BE avoids this by doing what they do best – defying expectations. One would very much expect a band noted for their constant insistence on societal decay and governmental collapse, in the year where everything went wrong, to either glory in the darkness or lapse into a smug collection of ‘I told you so’s. 

This album feels alive and there’s a visceral punk energy as the elements grow discordant at the end of tracks, as if imitating a death spiral

This album does neither – it’s actually the most uplifting and optimistic release I’ve heard in a while. Tracks like ‘Job’s Lament’ start with that dirge-like roar of guitars and violin one expects but as this builds up, especially once the album gets to ‘First of the Last Glaciers’, this develops into something that is triumphant and sunny, with a perceptible psychedelic feel of otherworldliness. 

This is especially true of the penultimate and stand-out track ‘”GOVERNMENT CAME” (9980.0kHz 3617.1kHz 4521.0 kHz)’, which starts with radio static field recordings before developing an immediate sense of melancholy with overpowering guitars that sound like an old jet engine weeping, punctuated by Sophie Trudeau’s eerie violin playing. Yet even this gives way to an uplifting feeling of release in the last few minutes of the track, as the tempo climaxes and all the electric guitars harmonise and release in such masterful bombast that they could be mistaken for horns on first listen. 

The glue which keeps these tracks, indeed the whole of the album together, is pacing. With tracks that clock in at over ten minutes (twenty if you go by the physical release), how you generate an idea and keep it interesting enough without sounding too hectic is crucial. While admittedly towards the end it can veer into being a touch overwhelming, overall G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! does a great job of making an album that’s pleasant as ambience but also massively rewarding to really focus in on. Instruments fade in and out and harmonise and clash and subtly shift like waves crashing against the shore. This album feels alive and there’s a visceral punk energy as the elements grow discordant at the end of tracks, as if imitating a death spiral. 

However, where pacing begins to work against the album is with the track listings. It’s an unusual (and admittedly petty) gripe to have today, but it still negatively affects the overall experience. G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! has two track listings – the physical release has four songs, consisting of two large tracks and two shorter palette cleansers in between, while the streaming service version cuts it up into eight smaller tracks. Neither of them really work – the former feels too messy and cramped and the latter feels like tracks are repeating the same ideas. Either the tracks need to be cut up differently, or a little pruning of the album would do some good. There is a little bloat here, especially with ‘OUR SIDE HAS TO WIN (for D.H.)’, the languid start of which is only redeemed by the haunting violin work towards the end.

Overall, this is a good album – a really good one in fact – and between the more standard toolbox of instruments (disregarding that glockenspiel towards the end) and relatively upbeat tone, it definitely serves a purpose as an excellent introduction to GY!BE for newcomers, as well as being an excellent piece in its own right.

Recommended track: ‘”GOVERNMENT CAME” (9980.0kHz 3617.1kHz 4521.0 kHz)’

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